Teaching Disney, Part Two: Race and Ethnicity, and Economics

PALS Note: This post is Part Two of guest poster’s coverage of teaching Disney in the Children’s Literature classroom. (Find Part One here.) In this section, Philip Smith discusses addressing race and economics when teaching Disney. These ideas help us think about teaching Disney in all of its complexity and getting students to critique texts which may be near and dear to their heart. 

In my first post, I established the context of teaching Disney in my Children’s Literature course and explained three of the five main elements we focus on in the class: hypertextuality, the formula, and gender. Here, I continue with the last two: race and ethnicity, and economics. As with the previous elements, students are able to identify some examples and, again, desire to defend others.

Race and Ethnicity

Fantasia

I invite students to list Disney characters whose accent, mannerisms, or appearance suggests that he or she is a member of a specific ethnic or cultural group. Students will often recognize that Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid is coded as Jamaican. He speaks with a Jamaican accent and sings calypso-style songs; he also, problematically, spends most of the film trying to please a large white man. Students may also identify the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp (1955) as having been drawn from racist cartoons of Chinese emigrants the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the “Indians” in Peter Pan (1953) as embodying similarly racist stereotypes.

Some students will typically suggest Aladdin is coded as Middle-Eastern. I will point out that Aladdin’s accent and mannerisms are American. Only his clothing suggests otherwise. Other characters in Aladdin (1992) (the guards, for example, or the merchant at the start of the film) have far more explicit, and highly stereotyped, markers of otherness. I will point out that we are quick to recognize Sebastian’s Jamaican accent, but not Ariel’s American accent, white skin, and blue eyes. In Disney, as in much of popular culture, white American is the default from which other characters deviate. Indeed, just as Disney teaches us that to be beautiful is to be a hero, it also teaches us, broadly, that heroism is largely the domain of white people.

I then provide a visual tour of the use of racist caricature in Disney, starting with the satyrs in Fantasia (1940), by way of the crows in Dumbo (1941), the musicians in The Little Mermaid, and the hyenas in The Lion King (1994). One particular example I dwell upon is King Louie in The Jungle Book (1967), whose speech and music are coded as African American, and who sings a song about how much he wants to be, but is not, human.

King Louis.png

The ensuing discussion is often lively. Students often have conflicted feelings about these characters. In the majority, they will agree that Disney has been complicit in perpetuating racist stereotypes, but, at the same time, they often have fond memories of these films. I tend to find that my role is best served by managing the discussion and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to speak.

Sometimes students will offer counter-examples. Lilo in Lilo and Stich (2002), for example, or the titular character in Moana (2016) one might argue, are coded in a manner which is more sensitive to issues around representation than earlier Disney films. Indeed, Disney did consult with the Oceanic Story Trust when working on Moana. Others may respond that the image presented of Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures in these films are not necessarily negative, but are idealized and unrepresentative, reducing the cultures in question to somewhat cartoonish (perhaps touristy) images of themselves, arresting the culture in question in a pre-modern moment.

I will ask the group if (arguably) more positive representations of race and culture excuse or negate other, more harmful, representations of particular ethnic groups in previous Disney films. I also ask who should be the one to decide whether a given representation is appropriate? Surely, I propose, it should be Hawaiians, for example, who decide if Lilo and Stich is an accurate and sensitive portrayal of their culture. This is particularly important given that one finds so few Pacific Islander actors in mainstream films. Lilo and Stich and Moana carry a heavy burden.

The takeaways from this part of the class is that Disney’s animal metaphors draw heavily upon, and therefore perpetuate, racist stereotypes. Students should recognize that these negative racial signifiers are attached to characters who are either comic or villainous. The more a character resembles a white American, the more likely he or she is to be a film’s protagonist.

Economics

I ask students if they own any Disney merchandise or, if not, when they last purchased a Disney-branded product. Often, depending on the size and age of the class, we can find among us an object which bears an image of a Disney character, typically a keychain, t-shirt, or pencil case. We discuss where and when we acquired such items. Inevitably, the subject of the Disney Store and/or Disney theme parks arises. Students will share stories of visits to such places.

I explain to the students that Star Wars (1977) (now, but not then, a Disney property) changed the business model for major films. Where films once primarily made money through ticket sales, Star Wars introduced the idea of merchandise as a major source of revenue.

The Little Mermaid, I observe, embodies the Star Wars business model. Disney followed release of The Little Mermaid with a large, and ongoing, merchandising campaign. This strategy, I argue, makes up some of the fabric of the text; the verb which Ariel uses more than any other in the film is “want.” I invite the students to consider the song “Part of Your World”:

Look at this stuff
Isn’t it neat?
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl
The girl who has everything?

Look at this trove
Treasures untold
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Looking around here you think
Sure, she’s got everything

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want things of above?
I’ve got twenty!

But who cares?
No big deal
I want more

I connect these lyrics to an idea we encountered earlier in the course when discussing John Newberry’s interventions into children’s literature. Newberry understood that to sell a children’s product one must market to both the adult and the child—that if one can convince a child to be desirous of a product, the child will persuade the parent to buy it. This has proven to be an effective strategy for Disney—retail earned Disney as much as $1.4 billion in 2015.

Many students will find Disney’s approach to merchandise to be somewhat underhanded, but others will defend this as good business practice and argue that, of course, companies which seek to make a profit must advertise as much as possible. I will generally allow students to discuss this as they see fit and play devil’s advocate if they seem to come to a consensus too quickly.

The takeaway from this section is that Disney understands the considerable importance of “pester power” and leverages this in their films. The content of a Disney film reflects the economics of the company—merchandising is not something which happens after a film is released. Instead, Disney begins by asking how they might sell as much merchandise as possible and then makes their film accordingly.

Assignments and Follow-up

Such is the appeal of Disney, not to mention the accessibility of the texts, that I find I have to structure my assignments so that students do not write and present exclusively on Disney’s animated films. When students tell me that they plan to write on Disney, I encourage them to choose a specific film, lest their argument become too general, and to make use of the many academic works on the subject rather than the plethora of less rigorous, but certainly more widely-available available, works online.

Student work on Disney tends to either constitute a spirited defense of a particular film—arguing, for example, that Frozen disrupts the existing formula—or a detailed critique, drawing upon examples we encountered in class. In either case, I encourage my students, as always, to ground their arguments in the text and, as much as possible, to consult existing reliable secondary sources.

Further Reading

Allan, Rohin. “Walt Disney and Europe.” Visual Resources 14.3 (1999): 275-295.

Bell, Elizabeth, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, eds. From mouse to mermaid: The politics of film, gender, and culture. Indiana University Press, 1995.

Byrne, Eleanor, and Martin McQuillan. Deconstructing Disney. Pluto, 1999.

Dorfman, Ariel, and Armand Mattelart. How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist ideology in the Disney comic. Intl General, 1991.

Eliot, Marc. Walt Disney: Hollywood’s dark prince. Harpercollins, 1994.

Finch, Christopher, and Walt Disney. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms and Beyond. Abrams, 2011.

Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. Disney Editions, 2000.

Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. Disney Editions, 1994.

Bio:

Phil Picture

Philip Smith obtained his Ph.D from Loughborough University. His work has been published in The American Comic Book, The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, The International Journal of Comics Art, Studies in Comics, Extrapolation, The Journal of Popular Culture, Literature Compass, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, The Journal of European Studies, Asian Theatre Journal, Slayage, and The International Journal of Bahamian Studies. He has blogged for The Hooded Utilitarian and Comics Forum. He is co-editor of Firefly Revisited (Rowman and Littlefield) and the author of Reading Art Spiegelman (Routledge). He is currently editing two books: Gender and the Superhero Narrative, and The Novels of Elie Wiesel. He is Assistant Professor of English at The University of the Bahamas where he teaches Children’s Literature and Popular Fiction. He is an editorial board member for Literature Compass and Slayage.